UF/IFAS Extension Team Wins National Award for Water Sustainability Program

Kelsey Fry Research

Blue dye measure HochmuthThe National Association of County Agricultural Agents (NACAA) has recognized Mace Bauer, agriculture agent with University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences Extension Columbia County, for excellence in sustainability education aimed at young, beginning or small-scale producers.

Bauer and a team of UF/IFAS Extension faculty received this national award, sponsored by Farm Credit, for the annual Drip Irrigation School, a program that helps farmers adopt water-saving technologies.

“Drip irrigation allows farmers to micromanage the amount of water and fertilizer they use on their crops,” said Bauer. Unlike overhead sprayers, which broadcast water over an entire field, drip irrigation targets the plant’s root zone, the part of the soil where the plant can absorb water and nutrients, Bauer said.

This precise approach lets farmers use less resources without sacrificing the quality of their crops. Drip irrigation also helps prevent fungal diseases, reducing the need for chemical treatments, Bauer said.

However, as with any unfamiliar technology, there is a learning curve.

“Many small and beginning farmers want to grow produce using drip irrigation, and we want UF/IFAS Extension to be a source of expertise and instruction for these folks,” said Bauer. The Drip Irrigation School, is an opportunity for small and beginning farmers to get expert, hands-on training with irrigation systems and best management practices, he said.

In one field demonstration, Bob Hochmuth, director of the UF/IFAS Suwannee Valley Agricultural Extension Center, where the school is held, and Dan Fenneman, Madison County Extension Director, add blue dye to irrigation water to illustrate how various irrigation systems disperse water differently through a cross-section of soil.

This dye test lets attendees see for themselves how water from drip irrigation stays where plants can access it. “The blue dye doesn’t lie,” Hochmuth likes to say.

Two years ago, John Ed Smith brought this demonstration back to blueberry growers in north Florida and Georgia, where he works as a horticulturalist with Michigan Blueberry Growers Association, a global blueberry marketer. Smith assists growers from north Florida to North Carolina.

“I took what Bob taught me and got a lot of growers using a drip irrigation and soil moisture monitoring program,” Smith said. “When they see that blue dye test, that’s an eye-opener for them.” We found that a lot of blueberry growers were overwatering, which is wasteful and not environmentally sound.

About 30 of his growers have adopted the technology so far, Smith said. “It has certainly saved them both time and money. The impact can go beyond these growers because once somebody starts using it and sees good results, this can prompt neighboring growers to do the same,” he said.

While most attendees are from Florida, out-of-state participants or industry representatives like Smith aren’t uncommon at the Drip Irrigation School, said Hochmuth. “We did not envision that the program would continually attract a crowd each year, but we’ve had consistently high demand,” he said.

The UF/IFAS Drip Irrigation School is held each fall or winter and lasts for two days. Please contact Bob Hochmuth (386-362-1725 ext. 103; bobhoch@ufl.edu) for more information and to sign up.

By: Samantha Grenrock, 352-294-3307, grenrosa@ufl.edu

Sources: Mace Bauer, 386-752-5384, mgbauer@ufl.edu

Bob Hochmuth, 386-362-1725 ext. 103; bobhoch@ufl.edu

John Ed Smith, 912-282-0492, jesmith@blueberries.com

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